Farmstead cheese is creamy, sexy—and a heck of a lot of work
YOU HAVE TO BE HALF-CRAZY TO ENTER THIS BUSINESS,” NATHAN ARNOLD, COfounder and lead cheese maker at Sequatchie Cove Creamery, says to me while leaning over the 750-liter stainless steel vat holding the beginnings of a new batch of blue cheese. He is elbow-deep in the creme brûlée-like curds, inspecting to make sure they are consistent in size. The whey will later be drained off, creating the conditions for the blue cheese curds to dry and age properly.
Standing in my hairnet and men’s nonslip clogs, I admire Nathan’s attention to detail and start to wonder, “How does crafting cheese become one’s everyday? When does such a passion develop?”
Nathan and Padgett Arnold, the couple behind Sequatchie Cove Creamery, tell their story as one largely born of a need for efficiency and independence. Having always worked for themselves (first in establishing Crabtree Farms before moving on to Sequatchie Cove Farm), Nathan and Padgett are fiercely determined to do work they are passionate about. Moreover, they (along with the Keener family who owns Sequatchie Cove Farm) have the dream of making the farm self-sufficient for several families. All involved knew that this meant some kind of expansion; however, as a small, family-owned, livestock farm, one can’t compete in scale. It could never be feasible to price Sequatchie Cove’s products against a large commercial operation. So, when you can’t make more of something, you simply have to make it better.
Nathan put it this way: “When you are a pasture-based farm, your product is grass. Your grass becomes animal protein as meat or milk. So, start there. Ask how you can make your grass (and the protein that follows) more profitable. How can you grow internally? We found we had to make a better value-added product from the raw materials we already had on hand.” Specifically, Nathan began looking at heritage breeds of dual-purpose cattle that are raised for both their meat and milk. Two birds, if you will.
“But we couldn’t just do milk,” Nathan quickly threw in. “You look around the commodity milk market and dairy farms are going bankrupt everyday.”
So if you can’t sell your milk as is, how do you move forward? Answer: Add value to the milk by crafting it into an unrepeatable product such as farmstead cheese.
“We are making something nobody else can make,” Padgett explained. “Cheese is similar to wine in that you are harnessing the energy of a single place. The flavors of our cheese don’t and can’t exist anywhere else.”
The reason for this exclusive flavor is that farmstead cheese begins with raw milk from the farm. As such, the ingredients and process are entirely unique for each cheese maker. The flavors begin in the grass, move through the animal, and present in the milk. For instance, Dancing Fern, a funky cousin of brie that Sequatchie Cove Creamery produces, has become its trademark cheese in the national market. Dancing Fern is highly labor intensive, requiring weekly saltwater washes for months on end. Andrea, Nathan’s assistant cheese maker at Sequatchie Cove Creamery, calls it a “creamy, sexy cheese.” Others obviously agree since it just took third place in the American Cheese Society’s Farmstead Soft Cheese category.
Jim Tanner of Bonnie Blue Goat Cheese, another regional, award-winning cheese maker out of Waynesboro, TN, agreed with Padgett’s sentiment on the uniqueness of farmstead cheese: “The taste of the cheese is all in the milk. Our goats’ milk changes with the season, with lactation cycles, and with changes in diet.” Because these flavor nuances are noticeable in the end product, the Tanners prefer to keep their chèvre minimally flavored, favoring plain chèvre above all.
When I asked Jim for Bonnie Blue’s backstory, he launched in. “It all began with goats. I got my first goat when I was 12 years old. I bought it from my grandma’s cousin for $3. I chased that thing around all summer. Then I sold it back for $3.” Gayle, Jim’s wife and the maker of Bonnie Blue cheese, got her first goat at 21. Between the two of them, Jim and Gayle have more than 100 years of goat-raising experience. Gayle made her cheese debut while taking culinary arts courses at a community college in Sacramento. She volunteered for a conference on cheese making and offhandedly offered some of her homemade cheese as an appetizer. After leaving the conference, Gayle got a phone call late that night from her professor who simply said, “Come back and bring all the goat cheese you have.” Her cheese had caught the eye of Lars Kronmark, a world-renowned chef at the Culinary Institute of America.
That first recognition turned into a series of awards and accolades, including a recent third-place prize from the American Cheese Society for their Tanasi Tomme cheese. Jim recalls another time Gayle won a prestigious award in the Quady Winery’s blind tasting competition for dessert pairings with their Essencia Orange Muscat wine.
“Gayle just brought a plain goat cheesecake laid out on a piece of cut glass. It had a few berries on top, you know. Out of thousands of entries from chefs, Gayle’s farmstead goat cheesecake took first place.” Jim smiled, “The cheese stood on its own.”
Now, Gayle makes the cheese at Bonnie Blue and Jim does the marketing and sales. Jim chuckled when I asked him if this was now his full-time job. “Gayle and I each work about 14 hours a day, 7 days a week to make this happen.”
The hardships of the cheese business continue far beyond the long workday. To begin, the start-up costs are enormous. Permits, licenses, building, and equipment all take their toll. More surprising is the very limited information available on cheese making. Nathan at Sequatchie Cove Creamery spent about six years hitting up cheese conferences and cheese makers before actually pouring the concrete for the creamery. Andrea, Nathan’s assistant, worked at the Whole Foods’ cheese counter for years, gathering the vocabulary and palate necessary to understand great cheese. She laments, “There are no degrees or certificate programs on cheese making. Maybe a workshop here and there, but you largely have to figure out things on your own.”
A significant part of that “figuring out” is keeping meticulous records. Jim of Bonnie Blue admires his wife Gayle’s work ethic in keeping track of every cheese she’s ever made and the conditions in which they were produced. “She looks back on her records and can figure out exactly what went wrong when a problem pops up.”
Nonetheless, perfecting one’s cheese is only the first step. Equally as important for the success of a farmstead cheese-making business is pounding the pavement to get the word out. Padgett remembers the (thankfully) past times where she hit every farmer’s market within a day’s drive. Jim talks about cold-calling restaurants everywhere, asking to give cheese demonstrations.
“I remember once I told Gayle I was going to call the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and get the chef on the phone. She didn’t think I could do it. But I did. And Chef Andreas is still a customer of ours.”
Nathan and Padgett credit the local food movement for much of their success: “We are in a renaissance in America right now of local, artisan foods. That’s how we’re surviving. That, and relationships. Farmstead cheese is about community and about relationships.”
Last week, I walked into my interviews with these farmstead cheese makers thinking, “Wonder why these guys got into cheese making…” and I walked out half-crazy for farmstead cheese myself. It is a rare moment in our modern day where we can know the maker and make-up of the product sitting in front of us. What’s more, this kind of cheese making is an intensely thoughtful way to appreciate this place we live. So, next time you go to the farmers market, grab some cheese, build community, and enjoy the flavors of this place.